Famous Mother Teresa photo was almost never released

MONROE, La. — The most famous photo of the late Mother Teresa was almost never seen by the public.

Baton Rouge photographer Marie Bissell Constantin shot a roll of film of the beloved nun when Mother Teresa came to Louisiana's capital city in 1985 to open a facility that would serve as a soup kitchen, homeless shelter and haven for unwed mothers.

Constantin stored those negatives, along with many others, inside a shoe box in a closet.

"Unbeknownst to me I had taken this beautiful photo," she said.

That photo of Mother Teresa, an iconic image that captured her dancing eyes and joyous smile, ultimately became the official portrait for her beatification in 2003 in St. Peter's Square, where Constantin watched from the Vatican roof as it was unveiled before more than 300,000 faithful.

"I was numb," she said.

Now, Constantin published a book about what became a 13-year journey with the soon-to-be saint called Finding Calcutta: Memoirs of a Photographer.

Much like Constantin's famous portrait of Mother Teresa, her photography career was also an accident.

Constantin was a 32-year-old LSU journalism student working at the Catholic Student Center when a priest asked for volunteers to take photos of a visiting bishop.

"Nobody wanted to do it, so I borrowed a camera and volunteered," she said. "I was kind of shocked because when I saw the photos I thought they looked nice. I found I had a natural sense of design."

Soon after, Constantin was hired by the Baton Rouge Business Report to take a photo of the bishop. "They paid me $50; I couldn't believe it," said Constantin, who continued to work for the magazine on a contract basis.

"Nobody else knew I didn't know what I was doing," she said, laughing. "I would just take enough photos machine-gun style to make up for my technical deficit."

Constantin's relationship with Mother Teresa began when she first took the Albanian nun's photo in New Orleans in 1984 while still learning her craft.

"When I took her photo in New Orleans and then a year later in Baton Rouge, I was a new photographer," said Constantin, who continues her photography business in Baton Rouge today. "I remember being nervous ... I also didn't really understand this woman. I was just starting my commercial business and I was fixated on myself."

That would changed a couple of years later when Constantin saw a video of Mother Teresa holding a dying person in Calcutta. "I remember her saying, 'God doesn't do this; we do this because we don't share what we have,'" the photographer said.

Constantin said she was deeply moved by the image. "The next day I volunteered at her soup kitchen in Baton Rouge, and things began exploding after that," she said.

While volunteering at the soup kitchen, a regional mother superior of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Order asked Constantin to see some of her photos.

"We sat on the porch at the convent and looked at some contact sheets," said Constantin, referring to multiple photographs on a single sheet of paper. "Later, a priest called me and asked me for a photo of Mother Teresa to use on a prayer card, and I sent him THE photo and forgot about it."

The photographer became part of the unofficial entourage and photographed Mother Teresa when she visited the United States. Constantin also traveled to Calcutta to photograph her there, still unaware of the importance of her forgotten image.

She continued her relationship with Missionaries of Charity and other orders even after Mother Teresa's death in 1997.

"Years later, that priest who I sent the negative for the prayer card called and told me he was at the Vatican and they were looking through hundreds of photos to use for the beatification," she said. "He said they couldn't find one that was just right, so he pulled out the prayer card and they said, 'This is it.'"

Constantin was stunned.

"It meant so much to me," she said. "Sometimes you ask for things in life and don't get them. And then there is something so wonderful you wouldn't dare to ask. That was what this was."

She returned to Rome this week for the canonization, where she learned the order had also used her portrait as the face of thousands of medals to distribute, and to reunite with other members of the entourage.

"We were in a spiritual place then, pure of heart, with Mother Teresa," Constintin said. "It was really the best of us all."

About the book

"Finding Calcutta: Memoirs of a Photographer" is available on Lulu, Amazon, Kindle and other platforms. The e-book is $8.99, while the paperback is $14.99 and hard cover $29.99."

Follow Greg Hilburn on Twitter: @GregHilburn1


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